The beauty of using LEGO as a creative medium is that it allows you to bring to life anything that your imagination can conjure up. However, quite often, the inspiration for our LEGO builds comes from things we are already familiar with, whether it is from real life or from our favorite fictional universe (Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc.).
If we limit our discussion to things from real life for now, what exactly is involved in designing a LEGO replica of your own house or maybe a well-known skyscraper? Let us talk about the concepts of scale and proportion which are integral to art and interior design and are applicable to LEGO builds as well.
Scale and proportion
The scale of a LEGO model is its size relative to the real version it is trying to represent. Say you are building a LEGO model of a building that is 10 feet tall and you want your model to be 1 foot tall, you could express the scale as a ratio 1:10 where the first number refers to the size of your model and the second number refers to the size of the real building.
Now, this 1:10 ratio applies to all the dimensions in the model and not just the height. And so, if the real building is 12 feet wide, your model would have to be 12/10 = 1.2 feet wide or your model would not have the right proportions (it would either look too skinny or too squat compared to the real building).
Proportion refers to the relative size of the different elements that make up your model. All these elements need to have a consistent scale (or size relative to the real version) for your model to be a faithful replica of the real thing. In the above example, it is not just the height and width that need to have the same scale, but the scale must be consistent (as much as possible) down to the smallest details including the doors, windows, shutters, etc.
This will ensure that the resulting model has the correct proportions and can almost pass for the real thing, especially when viewed at some distance.
A good way to illustrate the concept of scale is by using upscaled bricks. They are upsized replicas of LEGO bricks created using regular LEGO bricks. A common scale used for upscaled bricks is 3:1 and that means that the overall size of the upscaled brick would be 3 times that of a regular brick (in every dimension). Let’s use a 2×4 brick that is 4 studs wide and 2 studs deep as an example. The upscaled version would be (4×3=) 12 studs wide and (2×3=) 6 studs deep and its height (not including the studs) would be 3 times the height of a regular brick.
To build the upscaled brick, we could start by using regular bricks (such as 1×4 and 1×6 bricks) for the outer walls. The scale calls for the model to be 3 bricks high but we cannot just have 3 layers of bricks because that would leave a hole on the top of the upscaled brick. We would also have exposed studs on the topmost layer. So, how do we close the hole and cover up the exposed studs?
Remember that one layer of bricks has the same height as 3 layers of plates/tiles. And so, we can simply replace the top layer of bricks with 2 layers of bigger plates (that close the hole) and top that with one layer of tiles (that cover up the exposed studs). There are many different types of large plates we can choose from, but to keep things simple, we will just use 6×12 plates (we will need one for each of the 2 layers). We also need a way to represent the bumps on the top of a 2×4 brick in our upscaled version.
The bump in a regular LEGO brick is cylindrical (see Figure 4) with a diameter of 0.48 cm (1.5 plates) and height of 0.16 cm (0.5 plate). In the upscaled version, this bump needs to be (1.5×3 =) 4.5 plates wide and (0.5×3=) 1.5 plates high. The closest we can get to that using available LEGO elements is by stacking a 2×2 round tile on top of a 2×2 round plate. This combination has a diameter of 2 studs or 5 plates and a height of 2 plates. Now let us figure out how to attach the upscaled bumps to the top of our upscaled brick.
As we have seen in Chapter 1, a 2×4 brick is equivalent to eight 1×1 bricks placed in 2 rows and 4 columns. Both occupy 2×4 = 8 units in the regular square grid that forms the basis of the LEGO system, with the grid unit size being equal to 1 stud. The 8 bumps on the top surface of the 2×4 brick are each located centrally within a grid unit. In our upscaled version this grid unit has the size of 3×3 studs and for illustration purposes, we will divide the 6×12 surface on the top of our upscaled brick into 8 squares that are each 3×3 studs. The upscaled bumps must be attached centrally within each 3×3 square.
A nice thing about the 2×2 round plate is that it has an axle hole in the middle, the underside of which doubles as an anti-stud.
And so, we can simply attach our round plate/tile combination to the middle stud of each 3×3 square using a 1×1 plate and cover the rest of the exposed studs with tiles.
And voila, we have a 3x upscaled version that does indeed look very much like a regular 2×4 brick.
As we have seen in this example, there is always some rounding or compromises involved in scale models and these are acceptable as long as they do not detract from the creation of a reasonably faithful replica of the original. This is also one of the few cases where the LEGO model is bigger than the real-life object (a 2×4 LEGO brick) it is trying to represent. It is usually the other way around in most other cases, where the LEGO model ends up being much smaller than its real-life counterpart.
The minifigure scale
Introduced in 1978, minifigures or minifigs for short are small articulated figurines that are either packaged as a part of LEGO sets or sold separately. They are composed of body parts (head, torso, arms, hands, hips and legs) that are interchangeable (Figure 6). These parts come in different colors and with various designs printed on them, making minifigures highly customizable. There is also a wealth of accessories available that can be added to minifigures to customize them even more. These include hair and headgear (that can be attached to the stud atop a minifigure’s head) and various utensils, weapons, etc. that can be attached to minifigure hands (which are essentially clips). Minifigs have anti-studs under their feet as well as on the back of their legs allowing them to be attached to LEGO studs either in a standing or a sitting position.
In traditional art, when we categorize the scale of a painting or sculpture, we humans use ourselves and the world around us for reference. A life-size sculpture has a 1:1 scale and is the same size as the real-life person or object it is depicting. Other terms like large scale (used for Michelangelo’s David), monumental scale (used for Mt. Rushmore), small scale and miniature scale are all relative to the life-size scale.
If we think of a miniature LEGO world inhabited by minifigures representing us humans, it makes sense to categorize the scales used for LEGO builds by using the minifigure scale as a reference. But unfortunately, it is not always easy to come up with a single number for the minifigure scale and the reason for this is the proportions of the minifigures themselves.
A standard minifigure is 4 bricks tall (3.84 cm) not counting the stud on top of the head. It is exactly 4 cm tall if you include the stud as well. The torso is 2 studs wide (1.6 cm) not including the arms on either side. If we consider just the height, an average human is about 170 cm tall and that would make the minifigure scale around 1:42. However, the average width of a human torso measured at the shoulders is 43 cm and based on that measurement, the minifigure scale would have to be closer to 1:27.
So clearly, a minifigure is a rather cartoonish representation of a human being with the overall proportions being squatter than that of an average human. Scales in the range of 1:25 to 1:50 should work but most LEGO builders think of something closer to 1:42 when they talk about minifigure scale.
The scales used for LEGO builds are generally categorized using the minifigure scale as a reference. Any scale smaller than the minifigure scale is called microscale and this term encompasses the entire gamut of scales smaller than around 1:50. It is no surprise that a majority of the LEGO sets and MOCs out there can be classified as microscale models. Another common scale is the Miniland scale used for most of the large models you see in Miniland displays found at various Legoland Parks and Discovery Centers.
Here the figures representing humans are built using actual bricks and are typically about 11 bricks (10.56 cm) tall. Based on the height alone, this puts Miniland scale at around 1:16 but building human figures using regular bricks offers many more opportunities for customization (of even the height of the figure) and so slightly smaller scales like 1:20 also qualify as Miniland scale.
Picking a scale for your model
As you can imagine, there is a trade-off associated with scale. The bigger the scale, the more accurately you can represent all the elements of the original version in your LEGO model. But too large of a scale can result in a massive, unwieldy model with a prohibitively high piece count and cost. On the flip side, using too small of a scale can force you to compromise on accuracy (probably more than you would find acceptable). The trick, as with everything, is finding the sweet spot that works best for you.
Let us look at two examples showing how we can pick the scales for LEGO versions of buildings from real life – one is a rather simple 2-story house (see Figure 9) not unlike any you would find in a typical North American neighborhood and the other is one of the most famous buildings in the world – the Empire State Building in New York. We will then see how the dimensions of the real buildings can be translated to LEGO dimensions for the scale we pick for each one.
The dimensions of the house are shown in Figure 12. It has a footprint of 40 x 30 feet and the height of the front (and back) wall up to the bottom of the roof line is 20 feet (making each floor 10 feet tall). If you want to build a model of say your own house you can get the dimensions from a floor plan drawing if you have one available. And for any house or other building that is available to view on Google Earth, you can use that tool to make the measurements. Now let us assume we want to design a minifigure scale (1:42) model of the house.
The width of the house is 40×12 = 480 inches which is equivalent to 1219 cm. Divide that by 42 to get the width of our model which would be around 29 cm. Given that each stud is 0.8 cm wide, this works out to 29/0.8 = around 36 studs. When it comes to door and window pieces, we are limited to increments of an even number of studs. If each of the windows and the door is 4 studs wide, that leaves 24 studs for the wall segments on the front of the house and we can split them into 4 segments that are 5, 7, 7 and 5 studs wide respectively.
The depth of the house is 30 feet which works out to around 27 studs. An even number of studs always works better for the roof (as we will see in Chapter 3) and so we will round the depth of our LEGO version to 28 studs. If our windows are again 4 studs wide, we can make the wall segments 5, 10 and 5 studs respectively.
So how many layers of bricks do we need for each floor of the house? To figure that out, take the height of each floor (10×12 = 120 inches or 305 cm) and divide it by the scale factor 42 and we get around 7. The height of each brick is 0.96 cm which is close enough to 1 cm and so each floor of our house needs to be 7 bricks tall. The door piece we will be using is 6 bricks tall while the 4-panel windows (with a separate piece used for each panel) will each be 4 bricks tall. Now let us lay out the pieces to create the basic frame of the house following the steps listed below:
1) start building first floor by placing bricks for first two layers leaving an opening for the door
2) attach the door and window pieces
3) build wall sections that fill the gaps between the windows and door
4) add a final layer of bricks for the floor. This layer locks the windows and door into place.
5) create the second floor which is identical to the first except for the door which is replaced with a window
6) stack the two floors
We will look at adding the roof and other cosmetic details like the window shutters in the chapters that follow.
Now that we have seen how the scale calculations work for a regular house in the neighborhood, let us turn our attention to one of the most well-known buildings in the world – the Empire State Building (Figure 12). It was built in 1931 and was the tallest building in the world for about 40 years. It has since been surpassed in height, but it remains one of the world’s most iconic landmarks. What would it take to build a LEGO model of the Empire State Building?
Obviously, the shape of the Empire State Building is not as simple as that of the house. It has a wide base topped by a tower that tapers as it rises. This distinctive tapered shape (which came to be associated with the Art Deco skyscrapers built during the early 1930s) wasn’t just a stylistic choice. It was in fact necessitated by the zoning restrictions that were in place in New York during that time (that were intended to prevent the new skyscrapers that were cropping up in the city from blocking out too much sunlight from the streets below them).
The best way to approach the design of a LEGO model of something with a complex shape is by breaking that shape down into its components. These components would roughly correspond to the different sections making up our LEGO model. We can then use the biggest or most dominant component for our scale calculations.
Loosely speaking, if we don’t include the spire at the top, we can think of the shape of the Empire State Building as a stack of 7 rectangular prisms including the wide base (see Figure 15). The footprints of these rectangular prisms get progressively smaller as the building rises.
The LEGO medium is best suited to creating blocky shapes like rectangular prisms and so the Empire State Building lends itself quite naturally to representation in LEGO form. There are numerous LEGO versions of the Empire State Building out there, built to various scales – including two official sets (21002 and 21046) that LEGO themselves released. These LEGO models range from tiny (under 8 inches tall) to massive (over 25 feet tall). So, what is the best scale to use for the Empire State Building?
First, let us figure out how big a minifigure scale version of the Empire State Building would be. The height of the Empire State Building is 1454 feet according to Wikipedia. Divide that by 42 and we get our answer of 35. In other words, a minifigure scale version of the Empire State Building would be around 35 feet tall! That is even bigger than those massive models you see in a Miniland and is clearly not very practical.
Instead of tying ourselves to a fixed scale, we can take a different approach and focus on what our goals are with the model that we want to build. In general, we would want to build a model that is reasonably accurate, but accuracy can also be very subjective. You will have to decide what features of the original version you want to represent accurately and figure out how that squares with the constraints you may have in terms of the overall size of the model and its cost.
Many people would be content with representing just the outer shape of the Empire State Building accurately. But we will go one step further for this example and try to accurately represent the distinctive window arrangement that the Empire State Building has.
If we take a closer look at the tallest section of the building, we see that the wider side has windows that are arranged like this:
(where x represents a window and – represents a wall segment) with the middle portion recessed. There are 2-wide and 3-wide banks of windows but one nice thing about this building is that all the individual windows appear to have the same width which is also similar to the width of the wall segments. The smallest possible model that would represent this arrangement accurately would use one stud for each window as well as for each wall segment. This would add up to a total width of 30 studs on the longer side. The shorter side has 7 banks of 2-wide windows like this:
which works out to a total of 22 studs.
We need some measurements from the real building to figure out the scale. For something like the Empire State Building, you can get these measurements either from architectural drawings (if you can find them) or the measuring tool in Google Earth. The largest section of the building comprises 42 floors (floors 30 through 71). It is possible to make precise measurements in Google Earth by zooming into the 2D aerial view of this section of the building and using the Measure tool (that has the ruler icon). See Figure 15. Using this method, we can determine that the footprint of the tallest section of the Empire State Building is 184×134 feet.
And so, in our model, we would have 184 feet represented using 30 studs. Each stud is 0.8 cm wide, and 30 studs would be 30×0.8 = 24 cm wide. We need to convert the width of the real building into metric units as well. 184 feet is roughly 5608 cm. So, our scale ends up being 24:5608 or roughly 1:230. We arrive at roughly the same number if we use the dimensions of the shorter side (134 feet) and the 22 studs we would be using to represent it in our model (22 studs = 17.6 cm, 134 feet = 4084 cm. The scale is 17.6:4084 = 1:230).
Once we have the scale, it is easy to figure out how tall our model will be – just divide the total height of the Empire State Building (1454 feet) by 230 and you get 76 inches (6 feet, 4 inches). Next, we need to figure out how tall each floor of the building will be in terms of brick heights. We can once again use Google Earth and get the difference in elevations between the top of the section of interest (which happens to be 917 feet) and its bottom (which is 415 feet). See Figure 18. This difference is 502 feet for a section that has 42 floors and so the height of each floor is 502/42 = 12 feet.
So how many bricks does 12 feet translate to? 12 feet are equivalent to 366 cm which in our model should translate to 366/230 = 1.59 cm. This is equivalent to 1.59/0.96 = 1.66 bricks. We may be tempted to round that to 2 and use 2 layers of bricks for each floor in our model. But we must understand how this would affect the proportions of our model. Given that the Empire State Building has 86 floors (not counting the spire), the effect of this rounding can add up and make our model appear stretched compared to the real building.
We have two options to address this. If we mix in plates that are only a third as tall as bricks, we can avoid the rounding. This is because 1.66 bricks work out to 1.66×3 = 5 plates. And so, each floor in our model would need to have one layer of bricks and 2 layers of plates (for a total height of 5 plates). This will drive up the piece count in our model and increase its complexity.
Another option is to use 2 bricks per floor (which will simplify the construction of the model) but adjust the number of floors by a factor of 1.66/2 = 5/6. And so instead of having 42 floors that are each 5 plates high in the biggest section of our model, we will have 42×5/6 = 35 floors that are each 2 bricks (or 6 plates) high. The number of floors will have to be scaled down in a similar way in the remaining sections of the model. Compromises like this may not be ideal, but in this case, the significant reduction in piece count and the simplification of the building process makes it worthwhile.
Now, not everyone has the wherewithal or the interest to build a LEGO model that is over 6 feet tall (although the size is not unreasonable compared to some of the skyscraper models AFOLs including this author have built). But the 1:230 scale is sort of a sweet spot for a model of the Empire State Building in terms of accuracy and so we will continue using this example in later chapters to help illustrate concepts and techniques involved in the design and construction of LEGO models.
But let us also look at the trade-offs we need to make to design LEGO models that are smaller (and obviously less expensive to build). The original LEGO Architecture set (21002) of the Empire State Building uses just 77 pieces and stands a mere 7.4 inches tall (see Figure 17). That would put the scale of the model at around 1:2400 (less than a tenth the scale of the 1:230 model). At this tiny scale, the only thing we can hope to represent (albeit not very accurately) is the outer shape of the building. This is because the 1:2400 scale simply does not allow for any of the other details (like windows) to be represented.
The newer Architecture set (21046) of the Empire State Building that LEGO released in 2019 takes things to the next level (see Figure 18). It stands at 21″ tall making the scale around 1:800. Here the outer shape of the building can be represented a little more accurately but once again there is no way to correctly represent the window configurations (the main section being just 8 studs wide). However, the designer of the set was able to successfully create the appearance of more detail by lining almost the entire façade of the model with 1×2 grille tiles.
The use of 1×2 grille tiles to mimic window detail in skyscraper builds is an effective technique that was popularized by Spencer Rezkalla and Rocco Buttliere with their 1:650 renditions of various well-known skyscrapers. The downside here is that this significantly increases the complexity of the design. Instead of being able to simply stack bricks and plates, we need to utilize sideways building (or SNOT) techniques to be able to attach the 1×2 grille tile pieces to the outer surface of the model. We will be covering some of these techniques in Chapter 5.